Peter Bogdanovich's comeback picture of the 80s is a well-judged tearjerker about a great kid with only one problem: his face is radically distorted and the doctors have been giving him 3 to 6 months to live ever since he was 12. Besides being a perfect vehicle for Cher, the film is the breakthrough role for Eric Stoltz, and a sort-of debut picture for Laura Dern.
Bogdanovich plays this one very straight to form and directs it as classically as a movie about a biker family with an unusual child can be directed. Young Rocky Dennis is by all measures a normal kid with a great attitude that prevails over his own uncertain future and the problem of having a mother who takes drugs. He wins over school officials at first leery of putting a deformed child among the others, and soon charms both teachers and students alike.
So Mask consciously goes against the prevailing mini-genre of freak movies: Rocky Dennis refuses to become marginalized. He even has some success attracting the interest of teenaged girls, among whom as we well know, are always a minority sensitive and sensible enough to see boys for what they are rather than what they look like. True, Rocky is no John Merrick (The Elephant Man) as his looks aren't violently disgusting. He's able to speak normally and express his feelings with his eyes. It's quite beautiful to see him make solid human contact with his mom, her biker buddies, his sort-of stepfather Gar (Sam Elliott in a nicely consistent performance) and many of his peers at school.
The best scenes delineate Rocky's domestic battles with his mother's drug use and his summer camp romance with a blind girl played very nicely by a 17 year-old Laura Dern. Rocky turns the tide for his mother, and builds a relationship with a girl, something he feared might never come about. As Bogdanovich says, just because a story is sad doesn't mean it has to be depressing, and Mask lingers in the memory as a positive experience.
But there is a downside, and Bogdanovich and his writer Anna Hamilton Phelan move us toward it without the kind of manipulation associated with tearjerkers like the old Dark Victory. Rocky gets fierce headaches from time to time, and even though their timetable was off those doctors weren't kidding about his prognosis.
The story doesn't pretend that all will be roses for Rocky. Near the end he's disappointed by his best friend's decision not to go with him on a biking tour of Europe. After getting mostly positive responses from life, Rocky does run into a brick wall of discrimination when, after seeing his face, Diana's parents cut off access to her.
Cher is perfectly cast as a contrary and moody problem woman and sometimes neglectful mother. She's in really great shape for being a druggie, although the couple of scenes where she's truly wasted do pull back substantially on the glamour. Eric Stoltz of course gets all the attention as the red-headed kid, winning our hearts through a face that looks as if a bony Hockey mask has been planted under his skin. He's normal and different at the same time, a model student and a charmer with a sterling attitude. Laura Dern's blind girl is unusually convincing because, as Bogdanovich explains, she successfully defocused her eyes as blind people do.
Universal's DVD of Mask has two good things in its favor, the participation of the director and the restoration of his intended soundtrack selections and a reel or so of scenes trimmed against his will. Bruce Springsteen songs were meant to track Rocky's moods and mark the time as the story jumped forward from 1977 to 1980 to 1984. The studio wouldn't spring for the licensing fees at the last moment, to Bogdanovich's chagrin. They also yanked some party and funeral scenes that properly pace the story and add depth to the second half. Both the songs and the footage have been restored for this DVD. For the first time? I don't know.
Peter Bogdanovich's commentary and interview featurette show him analyzing his feature as would a film critic, which he of course was before moving on to directing forty years ago. He's obsessed with John Ford, hiring a Ford-discovery actor (Harry Carey Jr.) and even Ford's daughter as an editor. Everything seems to be an insider arrangement: Nick Cassavetes has a substantial part here and Peter Bogdanovich showed up in the last seconds of John Cassavetes' Opening Night. Laura Dern is of course the daugher of Bruce Dern, who Bogdanovich worked with on The Wild Angels. We're reminded that every random visual is an homage, with TV images ranging from Karloff in Frankenstein to the Don Siegel film Madigan. When it comes to describing the film itself, one-shot masters are pointed out as if that alone were sufficient to establish their superiority (they're very good).
Finally, Bogdanovich makes the point in the interview that extreme beauty and extreme ugliness both have a hard time fitting into the normal world, but uses it as an opportunity to remind us that this wisdom came from his relationship with ill-fated actress Dorothy Stratten. Bogdanovich deserves this kind of personal analysis, but it would sound better coming from a third party. He's a fine director and gives a sincere and informative commentary.
Why didn't Savant see this first run in a theater? My excuse is the arms-up poster image reproduced on the DVD cover art. That pose was used so many times in the 1980s, it just turned me off. Too bad.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,